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Creation - Jon Amiel interview

Creation, Jon Amiel

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JON Amiel talks about directing Creation, the film about Charles Darwin and his book On The Origin of Species, whether he’s anticipating and would welcome a religious backlash and working with real-life husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly…

Q. How much can be assumed that we know about Charles Darwin and how much did you have to fill in the details for audiences?
Jon Amiel: Well, I can assume that an audience is not going to be interested in seeing a movie about this man. I think you have to start with that assumption because I think that’s what I started with. I think you have to assume they’re going to think it’s dull and worthy, and somewhat the cinema-going equivalent of a trip to the dental hygienist. And then you have to prove them wrong.

Q. How involved was Randal Keynes, the author of Annie’s Box [the book upon which a lot of the film is based] and great, great grandson of Charles Darwin?
Jon Amiel: He was our security blanket really. So, what we did having first made our own imaginative connection with the man, his family and his relationships, was come back to Randal with many, many questions. Sometimes, we wanted to see if there was other research that backed up ideas we’d found, sometimes we wanted clarification. Randal read our script in each successive draft and corrected errors we’d made. It was incredibly important to know that not only did Randal support the science and factual framework of the movie, but also supported a number of suppositions we made as filmmakers and storytellers that he couldn’t make as a biographer. We wanted him to support them on an intuitive level.

Q. Are you prepared for any kind of religious backlash?
Jon Amiel: I’m going to ask you a question much more directly. To me, it’s somewhat appalling that Darwin’s ideas should be considered controversial in this day and age. If the religious right shows a spectacular ability to ignore the evidence in front of them, they’ll ignore our film. What I hope they do is see our film and I would love there to be a backlash because I would love to be involved in a vigorous, honest and open debate about the evidence.

Q. Obviously, Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly have worked together before. But did they have any reservations about playing a couple this time around, considering it’s a couple whose marriage is in crisis and grieving for a lost child? It’s emotionally very heavy…
Jon Amiel: We went to Paul first. He’d always been our Darwin. He was physically perfect, bore a remarkable resemblance to the young Darwin in the Richmond portrait, and he also had the intellectual capacity to convey the language of ideas effortlessly and believably. We suggested gently to his people that were Jennifer and he interested in working together, we thought it would be a wonderful idea for her to play Emma. She duly read it and said she was interested.

Q. So, how was working with them in practice?
Jon Amiel: It’s an interesting challenge. I’ve never worked with a real-life married couple before. Had they been the wrong married couple it could have been disastrous. Had one of them come to the set in a bad mood, they’d both have been in a bad mood [laughs]. Had they ganged up on me, I’d have been done for. But not only was Jennifer really good casting for Emma, and uniquely well equipped to play that kind of intense inner life that Emma was very well-known to have. But if you look at their choices as actors, they’re incredibly courageous and they were both willing to go to any place that was required for the performance. So, what they brought to the party was this incredible technical skill as actors, as well as this wonderful iceberg sense that there is in any relationship – the nine tenths that’s below the waterline of what you’re being presented with.

Q. How did Paul, as a dad himself, go about building a relationship with Martha West, his daughter in the film?
Jon Amiel: Paul’s a wonderful dad and I think he, myself and Darwin all had similar approaches to our children, which has created this tremendous commonality of purpose in really practical terms. I adore working with children. The critical thing with kids, though, is to let them be kids, and let them out of the awful straight-jackets they get put in when they stand there and say a line. So, what we did for 12 days in a rehearsal room was basically create this family. We didn’t really work on the text. Paul is just fantastic in that. He’s a wonderfully playful dad and he joyfully joined in, as did Jennifer and the other actors, to create this sense of a familial world. So, once we made the transition to being in front of the camera, the kids were just so loose. They knew each other as siblings, they could squabble as siblings, they could play as siblings, they could run to their dad and hug him without an ounce of self-consciousness. All of this they knew going in.

Q. And how was Paul with Jenny, the orang-utan?
Jon Amiel: Well, although we’d worked for several weeks training her to do certain things, having met her myself and knowing how Paul worked with the kids we made the decision to film that meeting. We didn’t have Paul meet her beforehand at all. We just put them in that cage together and I set it up so that I could film what happened. I knew that Paul’s improvisational skills with the kids would work every bit as well with Jenny, and so it turned out to be.

Read our interview with Randal Keynes